The Heart of an Empress: The Surveillance State and ‘Dishonored’

Dishonored features an interesting method of conveying information, background, and characterization in a game space in the form of an undead, mechanical, but still beating heart. When the player (from the perspective of bodyguard turned assassin, Corvo Attano), wields this mystical heart, aiming it at NPCs in the game, the heart will whisper secrets about those individuals.

This seems a particularly useful narrative vehicle for an action-oriented title, giving the player the opportunity to explore the stories and backgrounds of characters that are often treated rather superficially in games. Even the random thugs that Corvo and the player will spend their time dispatching in droves, all have histories, families, and pasts, fleshing out what is usually treated as merely a series of objects to maim and kill in the endless shooting galleries that such games frequently devolve into.

Speculation, of course, surrounds the former identity of the heart, mostly concerning the possibility of it being the embodiment of the spirit of the Empress that Corvo failed to protect as bodyguard and whose goal it is to avenge. This thesis seems sound given that the heart and the Empress are both voiced by actress, April Stewart, suggesting that they are intended to be seen as an extension of the Empress following her death (and, indeed, the heart is not available until after the Empress dies). There are other reasons to draw this conclusion as well, which have been fairly well documented, related to how the heart describes its past relationship to some of the primary characters in the plot.

Working under that assumption, though, I find myself slightly troubled by the heart and its use in the overall narrative context of the game as opposed to how it operates purely as a means of conveying information about the story.

One of the premises that Dishonored seems to ask the player to take for granted in assuming the role of Corvo, who will be ferreting out the corrupt officials that are truly responsible for the assassination of the Empress, is that the previous regime was a benevolent one. We are introduced to the Empress’s young daughter early in the game, which tugs at our heartstrings, providing a vulnerable object to feel protective of throughout the game and to associate with her mother and the pathos of losing her. Then, we are introduced to the Empress herself, who gushingly speaks of her admiration of Corvo (and, of, course, us, as players), who she describe as the only person “who makes her feel safe,” before she is murdered by assassins.

Somehow we are to assume that this Empress is some kind of benevolent monarch by contrast to those who killed her, but I’m not exactly sure — beyond the pathos of this brief introduction to her — if there is any rational reasons provided to do so. I know so little of her actual politics and how she has executed her obligations to her people in the past.

Honestly, though, part of the reason that this thought concerned me is that I have found myself a little put off by the politics represented in games of late and the manner in which the player is blithely assigned a “side” in a political conflict without fully understanding the dynamics of the politics in the first place. I have spoken over the last few months rather glowingly of the sci-fi mini-roguelike, FTL, for example, but I do have to say that the game’s premise — that I am an agent of “the Federation” attempting to keep important military intelligence out of the hands of what are called “the Rebels” — vaguely troubling.

This division into sides is of little concern in terms of playing and enjoying the game, which is more focused on resource management and space battles than in developing a robust story alongside those aspects of play. However, it may be my own penchant towards classically liberal and libertarian attitudes speaking, but I feel vaguely discomforted by even the narrative premise of working for what I perceive to be “the man” (the Federation) against what I might in other circumstances view as the symbols of liberty (the Rebels). Also, given the resources and manpower of the Rebels in FTL compared to the shoestring fleet that the Federation is fielding in opposition to them, I find myself wondering if the cause of the Rebels might be well worth fighting for, given that so much of the galaxy seems to have gathered around them to “fight the power,” as it were.

I have a similar kind of response to the notion of being in the employ of an Empress, seemingly an empire builder that I would normally assume is more interested in centralizing power, rather than in protecting the autonomy of nationhood or even individuals. And the truth is that the heart and the way that it works in the game makes me feel no better about this idea.

If one assumes that the Empress is benevolent, I guess one could interpret the fact that this thing, which seems to house the spirit of that former monarch, represents the “heart” of a good and noble leader, concerned with all of her subjects, so much so that she knows and can articulate their innermost thoughts and desires.

However, this smacks of a creepy kind of paternalism to me. Why is the heart prying into every nook and cranny of the psyches of every citizen of the empire? The kind of voyeurism that the heart provides feels more like the kind of surveillance justified by paternalistic states that claim to want to protect us by knowing where we are, who we are with, what our relationships to other people are, and the like. Throughout the game, as it began dawning on me that the heart probably is intended to be representative of the former Empress, I began to think that it was something like the political version of a helicopter parent, coddling and smothering in its benevolence and sensitivity.

What difference did it make in knowing my enemies and my own allies most guarded secrets, except to ultimately treat that information as intelligence that could be used against them in future if necessary? The heart had made Corvo and myself into a roving surveillance drone, seeking out data, not creating empathy for characters in a drama. After all, nearly everyone in Dishonored eventually becomes an antagonist in some form or another. This is a game of tactics about a man with a bagful of mystical tricks that even the odds, not about seeking how to better understand one another.

In this regard, I long for a better understanding of what Corvo and I are walking into in the first place in the game. While audiologs and texts also pervade the world and provide details about its culture and social structure, I still never felt like I met the Empress long enough to get to know her and consider how I felt about Corvo being in her service. I just want to understand the place of the character in the context of the world in order to begin to know if I am judging the Empress too harshly or not. Unfortunately, the context that it seems to be placing me in, as an agent of empire, is one that is treated too ambiguously to decide whether Corvo and my own efforts will be worthwhile in the end, or if I have just been seeking to destroy one new surveillance state for the sake of the traditions of another.